Published On: Tue, Jan 27th, 2015

Exclusive interview with Dr. John Wright: Is there oil and gas in Curaçao?

oil rigOne of the most discussed topics on the island for years now has been the possibility of oil and gas in our territorial waters. This topic was also used by the first Prime Minster of Curaçao after the new constitutional structure of October 10, 2010, to accuse those who brought down his government in 2012. The former Prime Minister even called it a coup, putting Curaçao on the list of countries which have experienced violent coups.

The current government headed by Prime Minister Ivar Asjes has recently called into life a new public company, the Curaçao Oil and Gas Company, which has as its main task, to organize a public tender for international companies that are interested in exploring in Curaçao’s territorial waters.

For this reason, Curaçao Chronicle sat down with an expert on this topic, Dr. John Wright. Dr. Wright is a retired consultant geologist with over 30 years’ experience in natural resource exploration. He has managed major exploration initiatives in Australia, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Caribbean and North America.

To my question whether the Government has any proof that there is oil and gas below the Curaçao waters, Dr. Wright gave me a resounding NO! “There are no reserves of any type of oil or gas that have ever been identified, qualified or quantified. To my knowledge there is no history of any natural oil seeps or shows. There has also been very little petroleum exploration activity and no drilling. Oil and gas can only be confirmed by drilling a well, and as there has been no drilling there can be no proof.”

I read one politician said there was a 90 percent chance of finding oil and gas and it could have been extracted more than 20 years ago?

“This and similar statements on the high probability of oil and gas have no strong technical basis. Also one of Curaçao’s problems to making a commercial discovery is the water depth, where 90% is classified as deep (>1000m) or ultra-deep water (>2500m). Prior to the late-1990 the technology was not even available for exploration and production at such water depths and therefore petroleum could not have been extracted more than 20 years ago.”

I thought somebody had said the Dutch had been stealing our oil for years and that was why we keep seeing drilling ships and rigs visiting the island and moored at Caracasbaai. Aren’t there also underwater pipelines?

“This is nonsensical. There is no evidence of any drilling having been undertaken, let alone secret drilling by Shell or any other oil company. To somehow build an underwater production platform of the scale we are talking about without any public knowledge would be completely impossible. With regard to the drilling ships and rigs, Curaçao has a small but commercially significant ocean oil rig refitting and maintenance business so this is why we occasionally see them. Indeed in 1998 one of the world’s deepest ocean production platforms (named Ursa) was actually built off Curaçao, before going to work in the Gulf of Mexico. As to underwater pipelines these are part of the Bullenbaai oil storage facility.”

Didn’t the Dutch politician Alexander Pechtold recently say on television that oil and gas reserves had now been found in the Antilles?

“Yes this is true but it took place in a Dutch television debate in October 2011, although attention to it only seems to have been made in the Curacao press this year. Where Mr. Pechtold received any information to base such a statement is a mystery to me. I did contact his office in Holland earlier this year for him to offer an explanation, but I never received a reply from him or his office. My suspicion is that he had visited Aruba at the time negotiations with Repsol were taking place, and had very incorrectly assumed or been misinformed petroleum had actually been discovered. Whatever, with the exception of some very minor gas and oil indicators found in two wells drilled in 1977 and 1982 on the Saba Bank (Windward Islands), no oil or gas has yet been discovered in the Dutch Antilles.”

If there has been no drilling in Curaçao waters what actual exploration has been carried out by oil companies?

“There have been 3 seismic surveys. The first seismic survey undertaken by Gulf Oil in 1975 was part of a regional survey of the southern Caribbean with widely spaced lines. In the second, in 1979, Western Geco shot a grid comprising 12 lines (423km) on the southern side of the island. Thirdly, several widely spaced regional lines are included in the 2004 BOLIVAR survey by the University of Texas. Together these give a total of about 1100 line km.”

What is a seismic survey and why is it important in petroleum exploration?

“While not wanting to get too technical, seismic surveys use reflected sound waves to produce an image or “scan” of the earth’s subsurface. After data collection (by specialized ships if a marine survey), images are processed by computers. These are then interpreted by geologists to paint a picture of the different rock layers and structures, such as faults and folds. This is done to firstly better assess a regions hydrocarbon potential and, if good, secondly target the drilling of oil and gas reserves.  A seismic survey is therefore how the geologist sees into the earth’s subsurface.”

Did these seismic surveys around Curaçao show the possible presence any oil or gas?

“No there is no direct evidence of any oil or gas. The shooting of seismic surveys in hydrocarbon exploration is just one of the early steps in a long, systematic analytical process that may or may not lead to a discovery. Indeed most of the seismic data available for offshore Curaçao is for regional geological assessment rather that prospect targeting.”

Then what do these seismic surveys tell us?

“Initial analysis of the Western Geco seismic data published in 1995 identified some large closed structures (potential hydrocarbon traps) but there was no evaluation of potential source rocks and reservoirs. More recent academic research has identified two main areas of initial interest but for gas rather than oil. These occur southwest towards the Venezuelan maritime border and west in the basin towards Aruba. While these areas possess some geological indicators of gas potential, they remain high risk or frontier exploration areas with no proven hydrocarbons and their deep water depths. More detailed seismic survey will be required to improve geological models and to define actual prospects and drill targets.”

Where are the nearest petroleum discoveries to Curaçao?

“The closest hydrocarbon producing wells to Curaçao occur in Venezuelan waters 80-90km southwest in a field called La Vela Offshore. This presently is known to only contain modest reserves of about 50million barrels recoverable oil plus > 130 billion cubic feet of gas.”

Why does Aruba seem so much more advanced in its program of petroleum exploration?

“Essentially this is because a greater part of Aruban territorial waters are shallow to moderate (<1000m) depths (about 30%). This attracted companies in the mid 1980’s when the National Oil Company of Aruba granted three separate exploration concessions or blocks (each between 600-800km2) to Hamilton Oil, Maraven and Occidental Oil. This first exploration campaign culminated with the drilling of one deep well in shallow water on each block in 1989/90, these wells drilled to depths of 3-4km but were all dry. The three companies completed their work and left Aruba. With increasing oil prices, improved technology for exploring the deeper ocean and the discovery of the giant La Perla gas field by Repsol in 2009, some 80km to the south in the Gulf of Venezuela, the Government of Aruba decided to renew its interest in petroleum exploration. In December 2012, it signed a contract with Repsol giving them sole exploration rights to an area of about 14,000km2, effectively Aruba’s total area of commercial hydrocarbon exploration interest as a single block.”

How is Repsol’s exploration program proceeding?

“In 2013 Repsol shot 3000 line-km of new seismic covering their entire block. This together with earlier seismic surveys conducted in 1978 and 1979 (again by Western Geco) gives a combined amount of 4500km of regional (or 2D) seismic. Based on these results Repsol, with now new joint venture partners Total (35%) and British Gas (30%), have detailed (3D) surveys planned for this year. There appears to be one to the northwest of Aruba, and a second to the east which goes up to the maritime boundary with Curaçao. As far as I am aware exploration is proceeding on schedule, with drilling of a well(s) anticipated to commence between 2016 and 2018."

Second part of this interview will be published later this week.

Image: High-tech semisubmersible oil rig capable of drilling in water depths up to 3,000m.

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